The 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards opened with a tribute to those lost and injured in the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting, which occurred Oct. 1 a few hundred yards down the road from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena, where Sunday night’s (April 15) ceremony took place.
For many winners coming to the pressroom following their victories, their thoughts were with the victims of that horrible day, but they were also eager to share news of upcoming projects and tours and celebrate the country music community coming together.
For Jason Aldean, winning his third entertainer of the year award was sweet, but being in Las Vegas remains “tough” for the singer ever since the Route 91 Harvest Festival. He was performing when the massacre occurred and, as he said backstage, “the first thing everyone wants to talk about is that night and it’s not something that I really like to talk about a whole lot and re-live. I know there’s a lot of people out here that were there who went through that with us. I just always want those people to know that we think about them all the time and we’re forever bonded with those people. You have a special place in your heart for them. To me, coming out here and winning that award after everything that’s gone down was a pretty special thing for us.” Unlike in years past, Aldean also promised he would not party too hard: “The first year I won, I celebrated a little too hard and missed my flight the next day, so I got to be careful that I don’t do that. I’ve got to go to New York [tomorrow].”
Miranda Lambert entered the press room admitting, “my shoes are hurting like a sonofabitch,” but she was otherwise all smiles about setting the record for more ACM Award wins by any artist. She entered the evening tied with Brooks & Dunn at 29, and then soared past them by snagging three trophies, including her ninth consecutive female vocalist of the year. “I really can’t believe it,” she said. “I just always try to live in the moment I’m in and then make myself better. I try to reinvent and be a better writer and better singer and performer, better person all around, so I don’t dwell on the past. It’s a lot of pressure, but I know it’s so important that I keep that attitude that I have because it’s why I’m standing here right now [and it’s] because of the amazing women that have stood right here before me.” Lambert, who kicks off a co-headlining summer tour with Little Big Town in July, took delight in her friend Carrie Underwood’s ACM performance, which marked the superstar’s return to the stage after a dreadful fall that broke her wrist and required 40 facial stitches last year. “I’ve been really worried and interested in making sure she was OK,” Lambert said. “Seeing her stand up there and be so beautiful—she’s one of the greatest singers of all time in any genre of music and can sing me under the table— I’m just proud of her and I know how strong she is. What I love about her is no matter what she always represents country music in the most classy and credible way. I’ve never seen her waver or hit a bad note.”
Old Dominion scored the biggest upset of the night, topping Little Big Town for vocal group of the year after Little Big Town had won the trophy four of the past five years. Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey was thrilled to move up to “a big boy category” after winning new vocal duo or group of the year in 2016. He joked that beating Little Big Town was “awkward” after the two groups recently dueted on “Stars In The City,” before adding, “They are the rare occurrence of the sweetest people and most talented people, so they show everyone how it’s done…We saw them and they are so supportive and gave us a hug and threatened to punch me in the face, all in good humor.” Ramsey saved his most serious comments for the Route 91 survivors. Old Dominion wasn’t at the festival, but met with family members of the victims and a victim at a show in Los Angeles. “They taught us about the power of music and how our music is part of their lives and is helping them. If we ever do anything, the smallest bit, the smallest step, towards healing something like that through our music, it will be much heavier than this [award] will ever be, so we’re honored.” Spotted Face-timing his family in the hallway of the arena? Old Dominion’s guitarist/keyboardist Trevor Rosen after the band’s win.
Brett Young, winner of new male vocalist of the year, is having a big year and it’s about to get bigger. He and his fiance, Taylor Mills, are in the throes of planning their November wedding. Or rather, as he explained backstage, ”she’s working really hard to plan the wedding and I volunteer to stay out of the way unless she really needs my help with something and I think we found a good balance there” Young is juggling wedding plans with opening for Thomas Rhett on the road and recording his sophomore album, which he promises will be as personal as his debut. “The first album was pretty clearly a very deep insight into my life and I never want to stray too far from that, but the opportunity I’ve gotten after the first album to write with some of the bigger, better writers in Nashville made me really want to dig into what their skill sets,” he said. “So I find myself rather than having to write my life story, find ways to take their idea or concept and story and still put my DNA on it.”
The members of Midland, who took home the trophy for new vocal duo or group of the year, couldn’t be bothered to give any attention to a blogger for Saving Country music.com, who had questioned the group’s authenticity earlier in the year. “We don’t care about that. We care about the award. It’s always wonderful to be recognized by your peers, but that’s just some fool trying to get click bait because he’s got to pay rent on his mom’s house,” said the group’s Mark Wystrach. “You can’t walk on stage and do what we do if you haven’t paid your debts and spent the time working on your craft.” Jason Aldean won entertainer of the year as the trio was in the press platform, leading Cam Duddy to comment, “Jason endured the brunt of what happened not long ago here in Vegas and I think that it’s a great thing [he won]. Not only does he deserve it, but it’s a reminder that everybody in this genre and the musical community at large stands behinds each other in times of crisis.”
Lauren Alaina talked about winning new female vocalist of the year, the crown to a comeback that has included her first No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with “Road Less Traveled.” “I’ve never felt so loved in all of my life,” she said. “I’ve been out for a long time and three years ago I wasn’t eligible to walk the carpet and now I won new female vocalist of the year and I had another nomination and I got to walk that carpet with pride and hug everyone along the way. The love I’ve felt since I’ve been in Vegas has been unbelievable.” When host Reba McEntire called to deliver the news of her victory to Alaina, the singer was so overwhelmed, she was speechless. She said she still hasn’t gotten to have her Reba moment, but added, “She had an extra salad for lunch today and she gave it to me.” By the end of the evening, Alaina got her wish. She returned to the press room as McEntire was on the platform and asked McEntire for a photo. Rushing the stage, she hugged McEntire and sunnily declared, “This is the best evening of my life!”